Bill Sherwonit

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Chugach State Park book, featuring photography by Carl Battreall

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The Nature of Cities blog posting, 2012: Rediscovering Wildness -- and finding the "wild man" -- in Alaska's Urban Center

Denali: A Literary Anthology
The Mountaineers Books, 2001

“This anthology, by an Alaskan writer with considerable knowledge of North America’s highest peak, brings together an eclectic and fascinating range of historical and contemporary accounts of life on and around Denali.
“This book will appeal to fans of Alaska, the north, mountaineering, natural history, and adventure in general. It demonstrates that a mountain, or other significant piece of natural geography, can inspire not only extraordinary efforts from individuals drawn to it, but a strong and generous literature. DENALI: A LITERARY ANTHOLOGY should serve as a useful contribution to ‘place’ writing, offering examples of approaching any part of the natural world from many angles.”
-- Nancy Lord, ISLE

Bill Sherwonit’s new collection, DENALI: A LITERARY ANTHOLOGY, is a fitting tribute to oneof the most remarkable places on earth. . . . Sherwonit knows his subject well. A nationally acclaimed photographer and essayist, he has prepared a comprehensive collection of 23 selections that cover a century of writing from the park. The result is a book that covers its subject in a comprehensive, and imminently readable, manner.
“DENALI: A LITERARY ANTHOLOGY, belongs in any library, public or private, that aspires to be complete on the subject of Alaska in general and Denali in particular. Bill Sherwonit and Mountaineers Books are to be congratulated on a job well done!”


Near the end of the 19th century, a Princeton-educated entrepreneur named William Dickey abandoned his life in the Seattle area after a series of failed business ventures. Like so many other fortune-seekers then and now, Dickey turned his attention north to the promise of Alaska. In May 1896, he joined thousands of gold prospectors who stampeded to the territory’s Cook Inlet region. After a summer in which he and some prospecting companions found traces of gold -- but no fortune -- Dickey returned south bearing news of a great ice mountain that, he felt certain, must be the continent’s highest.

This mountain, which Dickey correctly guessed to be more than 20,000 feet tall, already had many names. Early Russian explorers knew it as Bulshaia Gora (“great mountain”) and an 1889 party of American prospectors called it Densmore’s Mountain, after one of their own. Alaska’s Athabascan tribes, too, had named the peak. Linguist James Kari of Fairbanks has identified eight name variations that translate into English as either “Big Mountain” or “The High One.” Among them are Dghelay Ka’a, Denadhe, and Deenaalee -- from which Denali is derived. Dickey, however, preferred Mount McKinley, after Ohio Republican presidential candidate William McKinley.

Back in the states, Dickey spread word of The Mountain, and his name for it, in a story published by a New York newspaper, The Sun. Titled “Discoveries in Alaska (1896),” the Jan. 24, 1897 article reached a large audience and, in doing so, legitimized Dickey’s appellation: Mount McKinley has remained the official title for North America’s tallest mountain, despite numerous attempts to change it back to the more poetically descriptive and locally relevant name, Denali.

Dickey left a second and less controversial legacy: his newspaper article was the first published and widely read story in what has become an impressive literature of place. Over the past century, dozens of books and hundreds -- if not thousands -- of newspaper and magazine stories have been written about 20,320-foot Denali and the region that it dominates. In Alaskan literature, as in most people’s image of the 49th state, Denali hovers over all.

This is the first collection of original stories from that large and rapidly growing body of Denali literature. Divided thematically into five sections, its twenty-three selections span 101 years of published writings, from Dickey’s “Discoveries in Alaska” to the recent works of essayist Sherry Simpson; “trapline twins” Julie and Miki Collins; and several wolf researchers, led by L. David Mech.

Some of the works represented here are “northern classics”; for example, Adolph Murie’s A Naturalist in Alaska, Hudson Stuck’s The Ascent of Denali, or Art Davidson’s Minus 148°. Others are well known in Alaska, but largely unknown outside the state. And a few will be recognized by only the most avid Denaliphiles.

From another perspective, this collection reaches back untold centuries. The English translations of three Alaska Native stories, originally published during the 1900s and reprinted here, are derived from the much older oral traditions of Athabascan storytelling. Two of the three selections in part I are creation stories, that in part recount Denali’s origins: “The Second Making of Man” was translated by missionary and linguist Julius Jetté, who lived with Alaska’s Ten’a (pronounced Dee-nay) people at the start of the twentieth century; the other legend was told by Koonah, a blind shaman living in the lowlands northeast of Denali, and recorded through an interpreter by Judge James Wickersham during his 1903 expedition to the peak. The story later was published as “The Sage of Kantishna --Legends of Denali,” in Wickersham’s book Old Yukon: Tales -- Trails -- and Trials.

The third tale is a “distant time” story about humans and the “marmot people,” told by Dena’ina Athabascan elder Shem Pete to anthropologist Jim Fall in 1978 and later published in both Dena’ina and English. Similar to many stories from traditional Athabascan culture, “The ‘Whistler’ Story” is intended in part to present guidelines for human behavior.

Though our modern western culture tends to characterize traditional Native stories as “myths” or “tales,” it would be more accurate -- and respectful -- to call them “sacred stories” which present an indigenous world view. What’s more, Athabascan stories, according to Jim Fall, “are set in the past, but just how far in the past is usually not specified. Some take place at a relatively distant time when the world was still being shaped. Others evidently occurred later. In the world in which these stories take place, animals and people speak the same language and transformations between human form and animal form are possible. Indeed, the separation between the ‘natural’ world of animals, plants, and other entities and the‘cultural’ world of human beings is very narrow, if not nonexistant.”

The book’s other four sections present a past-to-present glimpse of western, non-Native attitudes towards Denali and its wild surroundings. The voices and perspectives are those of prospectors, explorers, government topographers, mountaineers, naturalists, biologists, park rangers, trappers, hunters, conservationists, modern homesteaders, and wilderness activists.

In part II, “Early Explorations,” pioneers describe the Denali region while the landscape is still largely terra incognita. William Dickey’s “Discoveries in Alaska” naturally begins the section., although, for all his influence, Dickey barely touched the southernmost edges of what Alaskans today call the “Denali region.” But his travel narrative clearly shows the obstacles that explorers faced when trying to find an overland route from Cook Inlet north to the Alaska Range. And his description of The Mountain certainly piqued the interest of adventurers, who suddenly had a new highest peak to conquer.

Gold fever lured Dickey north again in 1898, though this time into Canada. That same year, the prospects of more Alaskan gold strikes prompted the federal government to launch a series of trailblazing expeditions into the territory. During the next four years, several mapping parties would pass near or through the Denali region, including one led by geologist Alfred Brooks. In August 1902 Brooks became the first person in recorded history to walk upon Denali’s slopes. Brooks reached only 7,500 feet before retreating, but he later proposed a “Plan for Climbing Mount McKinley” in National Geographic. The best account of Brooks’s own approach to Denali appeared in The Journal of Geography; it is included here.

The summer after Brooks published his climbing plan, explorer Dr. Frederick Cook led an expedition to the Alaska Range, determined to reach Denali’s top. The team failed in that regard, but during their travels team members circumnavigated both Denali and neighboring 17,400-foot Mount Foraker -- an epic 94-day journey that is still considered one of the most remarkable Alaska wilderness trips ever accomplished. Journalist Robert Dunn’s chronicle of that 1903 expedition, The Shameless Diary of an Explorer, is considered a classic example of exploration exposé writing.

The final entry in this section is taken from Charles Sheldon’s book The Wilderness of Denali. A passionate naturalist and hunter, Sheldon came to the Denali region in 1906 and 1907, drawn not by mountains but a desire to study and hunt Dall sheep. During his stay, he also learned about the region’s other wildlife, its landscape, weather, and seasonal cycles. Upon returning east, Sheldon began a decade-long campaign that led, in 1917, to the formation of Mount McKinley National Park. Excerpts in this anthology are taken from his initial pursuit of Dall sheep rams.

Part III, “Mountaineering,” includes a small sampling of the many climbing books published about Denali and its Alaska Range neighbors. I have opted to emphasize early milestone expeditions. Until Dickey’s report of a mountain “over 20,000 feet high” -- confirmed in 1898 by government surveyors -- European and American explorers and climbers had assumed 18,008-foot Mount St. Elias, along Alaska’s southern coast, to be the continent’s grandest. Climbing teams came in the late 1800s to claim that prize, and only in the early 1900s did mountaineers turn their attention to the Alaska Range.

Climbers launched the first two attempts on Denali in 1903, one led by Judge James Wickersham, the other by explorer Frederick Cook. Neither team ascended higher than 11,000 feet or so. Cook returned in 1906 to try again -- and once more it appeared his expedition had been thwarted. But just as his party was breaking up, Cook decided to make one “last desperate attempt,” accompanied only by horsepacker Ed Barrill. A few weeks later, Cook reappeared, claiming success. His claim, now widely discredited, led to one of the great controversies in North American mountaineering, still ongoing in some quarters. Accounts from Cook’s 1903 and 1906 expeditions are included here, excerpted from his book To the Top of the Continent.

An experienced outdoorsman and member of Frederick Cook’s 1906 expedition, Belmore Browne almost immediately questioned Cook’s supposed conquest. Four years after the 1906 expedition, he and Herschel Parker would lead another party into the Alaska Range and find evidence to disprove Cook’s claim. In 1912, Browne and Parker returned to the range a third time. On June 29, they and teammate Merl La Voy came within a few hundred yards of Denali’s top, only to be stopped by a ferocious storm. Browne’s account of that heartbreaking denial is reprinted from his book The Conquest of McKinley.

No discussion of Denali mountaineering would be complete without some mention of the remarkable Sourdough Expedition. In 1910 a team of four gold miners with no technical climbing experience challenged North America’s highest peak with only the most rudimentary gear, to disprove Frederick Cook’s 1906 claim to success. They succeeded in a brazen style; but instead of ascending Denali’s 20,320-foot South Peak, they chose the 19,470-foot North Peak. Bradford Washburn’s account of the Sourdough Expedition is taken from Mount McKinley: The Conquest of Denali. Now in his ninth decade, Washburn is the world’s leading authority on Denali; he has devoted much of his life to its study and has acted as its climbing “visionary.” In a second Mount McKinley excerpt, he considers some of the challenges still awaiting mountaineers.

By 1912, eight parties had attempted to climb Denali, but none had reached its absolute top. Enter Hudson Stuck, a missionary and self-professed amateur climber who had come north to work with Alaska’s Natives. Long enamored of Denali, Stuck organized a 1913 expedition to the peak and with three other men, none of them experienced mountaineers, he reached the roof of the continent. His account is reprinted from a mountaineering classic, The Ascent of Denali.

We jump now to the late 1960s, when Denali was no longer a mysterious place -- except in winter. In January 1967, an eight-man expedition flew into the Alaska Range to attempt the first winter ascent. Three team members -- Art Davidson, Dave Johnston, and Ray Genet -- reached the summit, then survived a severe winter storm on their descent. Davidson recounted the climb and survival story in Minus 148°: The Winter Ascent of Mt. McKinley, from which a chapter has been taken.

Much has changed since Cook, Browne, and Stuck challenged Denali in the early 1900s. Improved access; the availability of guiding services; and advances in climbing gear, clothing, and food have opened the mountain to thousands of adventurers. One of the biggest changes has been air access: today nearly all Denali climbers fly into the Alaska Range from Talkeetna, a small town appropriately nicknamed the “Gateway to Denali.” The first and most famous of Talkeetna’s “Denali Flyers” was Don Sheldon, a pioneering pilot who assisted mountaineers from the 1950s until his death in 1975. An account of one Sheldon air-rescue episode, taken from James Greiner’s book Wager with the Wind, is the final mountaineering entry.

Many of the early acounts in parts II and III include place names and other words which have changed in spelling over the years. For example, the Bering Sea was once the Behring Sa, the Alaska Range was known as the Alaskan Range, and so on. These words have been kept as they appeared in the original writings, as they reflect the usage of the time.

Part IV, “Natural History,” presents a look at Denali’s wildlife and wild lands, through the experiences and musings of those who’ve closely studied the region’s nonhuman inhabitants. The section might logically begin with the writings of hunter-naturalist Charles Sheldon, who painstakingly documented his encounters with the region’s wildlife in The Wilderness of Denali. Because Sheldon’s writings -- for equally good reasons -- have been placed in part II, “Early Explorations,” the next logical choice ton lead off part IV is an account by biologist Adolph Murie. Though best known for his ground-breaking study of wolf-sheep relationships during the late 1930s and early 1940s, Murie closely observed all of Denali’s wildlife. Between the 1920s and 1970s, he wrote scores of reports and several popular books about the mammals, birds, and general ecology of then Mount McKinley National Park.The story featured in this collection is a chapter from his book A Naturalist in Alaska.

Nearly a half-century after Murie began his wolf-sheep studies, a group of biologists launched the most comprehensive investigation of Denali’s wolves ever attempted. Led by renowned wolf researcher L. David Mech, team members followed wolf packs throughout 6-million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve and recorded all they could learn about the wolves’ lives. The findings and interpretations from their 1986-to-1994 field work have been published in The Wolves of Denali. The book’s final chapter presents a narrative overview of Denali’s wolf-prey relationships.

Grizzly bears, perhaps even more than wolves, have come to symbolize Denali National Park’s rich wildness. Nearly everyone who enters the Denali wilderness comes away with a grizzly story, or so it seems. During the 1980s, naturalist Rick McIntyre closely observed grizzlies while working as a Denali park ranger. One bear, in particular, grabbed McIntyre’s attention and he tells the story of “Little Stony” in Grizzly Cub.

Yet another of Denali’s large mammals piqued the scientific curiosity of researcher Vic Van Ballenberghe. Since 1980, Van Ballenberghe has collared, tagged, and studied the lives of more than seventy moose inside Denali National Park. Each spring he watches cow moose give birth to calves; and every fall he studies the interactions of cows and bulls during the annual rut. Writer Sherry Simpson helps us to understand Van Ballenberge’s passion for moose in her essay “Strange Grace” while painting an intimate portrait of both the scientist and his subject of study. The final natural history observations in part IV are shared by Tom Walker. A long-time resident of the Denali region, Walker is best known as a wildlife photographer but he’s also an accomplished writer. His book Denali Journal is adapted from diary entries and documents memorable encounters with the region’s wildlife from the early seventies through 1990.

Part V, “Modern Adventures,” includes stories by those who today live in Denali’s shadow or explore its wildlands More than a century after William Dickey’s tenative wanderings up the valleys south of the Alaska Range, the Denali region remains a mostly wild place. Six million acres are protected within Denali National Park and Preserve, another 325,000 acres in neighboring Denali State Park; outside the parks is a patch-work mix of state, borough, local, and privately owned lands. Living within the region is a community of people who have carved out niches and found adventure as homesteaders, miners, trappers, guides, rangers, entrepreneurs, writers.

One of 400 people who live in Talkeetna, the southern “Gateway to Denali,” Daryl Miller first attempted to climb the great peak in 1981. Now Denali National Park’s chief mountaineering ranger, he has joined in more than a dozen Denali climbing expeditions and assisted in more than 30 mountain rescues. Miller also treks through the surrounding wilderness of rugged mountains, tundra-topped foothills, and expansive lowlands. In the mid-1990s, he and buddy Mark Stasik completed one of the most ambitious journeys of Denali’s modern era: a winter circumnavigation of the Alaska Range’s two highest peaks. Miller tells their story in “The Alaskan Mile.”

Extended winter journeys are a seasonal way of life for Julie and Miki Collins, though these self-described “trapline twins” prefer sled dog teams to other modes of travel. The sisters were born and raised along the shores of Lake Minchumina, near the northwest corner of Denali National Park and Preserve; now in their 40s, they continue to lead a subsistence lifestyle deep in the wilderness. One chapter of their lives is told here, in an excerpt from Riding the Wild Side of Denali.

Richard Leo, by contrast, is a relative newcomer to the Denali region. In 1981 he left the corporate world of New York City and headed north to Alaska, where his search for a new life eventually led to the Upper Susitna Valley, on Denali’s southern side. There, on a remote homestead, Leo has built an adventurous life with his wife, three boys, and kennel of dogs, in a neighborhood that includes the continent’s tallest mountain, glacial rivers, lush forests, grizzlies, and wolves. Way Out Here describes the life he’s found in Denali’s wilds.

The south side of Denali where Rick Leo and Daryl Miller reside is also home to 325,000-acre Denali State Park, or “Little Denali” as some call it. Among the most accessible of all Alaskan parklands -- it’s bisected by the Parks Highway and bordered on its eastern edge by the Alaska Railroad -- Denali State Park remains one of the least known. But that’s changing, as tourism development builds along the park’s boundaries and even within it, on private inholdings. I present a portrait of Little Denali in the essay “Denali State Park: In the Shadow of The High One,” Taken from the book Alaska’s Accessible Wilderness.

The final selection is a series of short essays from Kim Heacox’s book In Denali. A naturalist, photographer, and author, Heacox has worked to preserve Denali National Park’s wildness since his one season as a Denali ranger in 1981. Now a resident of Southeast Alaska, Heacox lived near the national park’s entrance from 1991 to 1995 and he has made dozens of trips into its remote backcountry. His book both celebrates Denali’s wildness and mourns the gradual loss of its “wild essence” because of increased human demands.

From Athabascan distant-time legends to contemporary tales of modern-day homesteaders and adventurers, the storytellers in this anthology powerfully portray the wild nature of both Denali, The High One, and the vast wilderness region that surrounds The Mountain. They tell us of the landscape’s dangers, its obstacles and abundant wildlife; and they share its allures, whether gold or mountain tops, snow-white sheep or wilderness solitude. Here we discover why men and women who are drawn this special place, find hope, challenge, inspiration -- and sometimes sorrow -- in Denali and the broad shadow that The Mountain casts. We learn too of the possibilities for personal discovery, both past and present, and the essence of the “wilderness spirit” that draws people here and sometimes will not let go. Finally, we learn of threats to the region’s wildness that prompt writers and other storytellers to continue sharing the story of Denali and the ancient magic that must be protected.

Buy Denali: A Literary Anthology at

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